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If I learned one thing as a juror in the recent gang rape trial, it's the importance of keeping the unanimous verdict in a criminal trial.

Most experts say the O.J. Simpson trial will end with a hung jury. If so, more calls for majority verdicts will ring out. Californians should reject this shortsighted idea that would destroy a crucial legal tradition.A bill is kicking around the Legislature to eliminate the unanimous verdict in criminal trials in favor of the three-fourths majority (9 to 3) now employed in civil trials, such as personal injury suits. Some people have suggested forming "professional" juries to decide criminal cases for a set time, not unlike the grand juries that serve for a year.

And a recent report in The San Francisco Examiner's Outsider column suggested that San Francisco juries are too liberal and too soft on defendants.

Perhaps these proposals and complaints are a rational extension of the three-strikes, get-tough-on-crime mentality or a not-so-subtle attack on the jury-of-your-peers system. But the powers-that-be seem convinced that juries are the problem in our criminal justice system.

After sitting in that jury box for four months, I'm convinced we're the only thing in the legal system remaining pure and honorable.

Lawyers try to obscure or uncover the truth, depending on whose side it helps. In a criminal trial where almost everyone is an advocate or a biased witness, the impartial jury must sift through the lies, distortions, misrec- ollections and the mess.

Like the making of laws and sausages, the process is ugly but necessary.

Some argue that majority verdicts would reduce the number of hung juries.

Our jury reached numerous non-verdicts when we could not reach unanimous decisions. This was as frustrating for us as it must have been to the victims, defendants, lawyers, prosecutors and police.

But there's an obvious reason that unanimous verdicts have been a cornerstone of the British and American judicial systems for centuries: reasonable doubt.

How can society convict and imprison someone if as many as three jurors have a reasonable doubt? Is their opinion less valid because they are in the minority?

Furthermore, research shows that in civil cases requiring only a majority of nine, thorough deliberations were prevented by the discounting of opinions voiced by those in the minority.

Majority verdicts would taint the criminal jury's deliberations by encouraging negotiation, deal-making and compromise.

This may work in a civil trial, where the burden of proof is different. But it has dangerous implications criminal proceedings where people's lives are at stake.

A better way to improve the jury system without compromising its integrity would be to reduce the number of jurors. Eight or nine jurors would be adequate to fairly decide a criminal case. Trials would move faster. Court costs would be reduced without sacrificing fairness.

Majority rule works well when we make laws, enact budgets or elect representatives. In a criminal trial, only a unanimous verdict can leave no doubt as to a person's guilt or innocence. As victim or defendant, I wouldn't want it any other way.